Tag Archives: milwaukee county executive

Court allows some Walker probe papers public

The Wisconsin Supreme Court recently ordered the release of documents from John Doe investigations of Gov. Scott Walker and his associates relating to Walker’s time as Milwaukee county executive and then governor.

The court ordered that several dozen documents be made available to the public. It is unclear how heavily redacted the documents will be.

Documents from the secret investigations had been sealed, though some have been leaked.

Justice Shirley S. Abrahamson partially dissented from the decision, saying she favored the release of the documents but did not agree that all the redactions were necessary or consistent.

Justices Ann Walsh Bradley, Rebecca Grassl Bradley and Daniel Kelly did not participate.

Both John Doe investigations were launched by Milwaukee District Attorney John Chisholm.

The first, in 2010, resulted in convictions of six of Walker’s aides for actions including stealing money from a veterans’ event and campaigning on public time.

The second, launched in 2012, centered on whether Walker’s 2012 recall campaign illegally coordinated with outside conservative groups.

The state Supreme Court halted that probe in 2014, saying such coordination is legal as long as it doesn’t become express advocacy, a political term for advertising that specifically asks voters to defeat or elect a candidate.

Supreme Court election, contentious county race drive turnout in Milwaukee

Voter turnout for the Feb. 16 primary elections in Milwaukee was nearly double that of the last municipal primary in 2012. Hotly contested races for the state Supreme Court, Milwaukee County Executive, Milwaukee mayor and seven Milwaukee aldermanic districts helped spur participation.

Neil Albrecht, executive director of the city of Milwaukee Election Commission, said turnout this year was 21 percent, compared to 12 percent in 2012.

The turnout “really isn’t attributable to anything other than who’s on the ballot and how contentious the races are,” Albrecht said, noting the 2012 municipal primary had much lower-profile contests.


At the top of the ballot was a three-way race for the state’s Supreme Court. The two highest vote getters will face off in a general election on April 5.

Winning one of the places on that ballot was Rebecca Bradley, a controversial Supreme Court justice who was appointed by Scott Walker months ago. She received 45 percent of the statewide vote.

Close behind, JoAnne Kloppenburg won the other spot on the April ballot. She took second place with 43 percent of the vote. In 2011, she came close to unseating right-wing Justice David Prosser.

Milwaukee County Circuit Judge Joe Donald came in third. Conventional wisdom is that Donald’s voters will give their support to Kloppenburg in April, which suggests a tough race ahead for Bradley.

Adding to her difficulty, Bradley is closely tied to Walker, whose approval rating stands at just 38 percent. On the other hand, she has strong Republican support and can expect massive contributions from Koch-backed groups as well as Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, another right-wing group.


Another big draw on the Feb. 16 ballot was a spirited race for Milwaukee County Executive between incumbent Chris Abele and challenger Chris Larson, a state senator. Larson eked out a slim but impressive 700-vote victory in the primary, which also included long-shot candidates Joseph T. Klein, a member of the Wisconsin Pirate Party, and carpenter Steve Hogan.

Abele and Larson are both political progressives. Nonetheless, Larson ran a negative campaign that attacked Abele as a power-hungry oligarch indifferent to the middle class and the poor. Larson’s supportive PAC tried to tie Abele to Scott Walker, depicting the two political opposites as flip sides of the same coin in one campaign mailer.

Abele ran a positive campaign touting his success in increasing county services while restoring fiscal balance to the county after inheriting a massive structural debt from his predecessor, Walker.


The first-time implementation of the state’s new voter ID law went relatively smoothly in this primary, but the law has yet to face its most challenging test.

Conservatives were quick to seize on higher turnout in Milwaukee and throughout much of the state yesterday as proof the new voter ID law failed to stifle participation, as liberal groups had predicted. But Albrecht said the real test of the law’s impact will come with the elections in April and especially in November, when there will be presidential, senatorial and other high-profile races on the ballot.

Although voting went smoothly for the most part, Albrecht said “there was a fair amount of confusion and frustration for voters.”

In addition to dealing with their first election using the voter ID law, poll workers had to implement other changes that state GOP leaders have made to the electoral process. Since taking office in 2011, Walker has enacted 33 laws that impact the electoral process in Wisconsin, according to the Wisconsin Legislative Council.

“I don’t think lawmakers or the pubic necessarily recognize that election workers only perform their duties four times a year at the most and (the laws) have become so complex that it really is a struggle for the workers and for the voters,” Albrecht said.

He added that voters in February primaries are usually the most dedicated and experienced voters, so they tend to be more knowledgeable and aware of voter requirements.

“The February primary (draws) the frequent voters, the people who come out and vote in probably every election,” Albrecht explained. “The real test of how the ID law affects voters will be this April and November. You can’t gauge the effect of photo ID by a primary.” 

Chris vs. Chris: Meet the candidates

Chris Larson

State Sen. Chris Larson says he’s running against Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele to represent the middle class and workers, people he says Abele has neglected. He vows to be more accessible and responsive to the county board of supervisors and the public, accusing Abele of ignoring them and operating in secrecy. 

“I want to take the office and turn it back to the middle class and make it responsive to everyone in the county,” Larson says. “The county needs someone who’s responsive and in touch.”

But Larson is short on specifics about his own vision for the county and how he would handle differently many of the challenges Abele has faced.

Larson and other Abele critics frequently attack Abele on the grounds that his wealth makes it impossible for him to relate to ordinary Wisconsinites. Larson refers to Abele as an “oligarch” and depicts him as a spoiled child.

“He’s not used to having anybody question his authority,” Larson says. 

Larson says Abele’s dictatorial management style has made it difficult for the county to maintain quality workers. He especially faults Abele for what he calls “power grabs.”

Larson says Abele has changed his stance on several issues now that election time is approaching: “He vetoed the living wage publicly,” Larson says. “Now he’s out there saying it’s a good idea.”

After serving two and a half years as a county supervisor, Larson, then 29, became the youngest Wisconsin senator in 2010. He was quickly promoted to the position of senate minority leader, but stepped down after the 2014 elections in order to spend more time with his young family.

“For two and a half years, I worked very hard in recruiting candidates and raising money and traveling the state to beef up support for progressive ideals and (point out) the horrible things that (Gov. Scott) Walker was doing to our state,” Larson says.

In 2011, the Democratic Party of Milwaukee County named Larson the elected official of the year. One of the Legislature’s most committed environmentalists, Larson has been named an environmental champion by the Wisconsin League of Conservation Voters, which also named him to its honor roll. Planned Parenthood and People for the American Way have honored him.

One of the greatest areas of difference between the two candidates involves taxes. Larson acknowledges that Abele inherited a burdensome structural debt from Walker, but he says Abele unnecessarily put the county on an austerity diet that resulted in cutting programs that hurt the poor. As a supervisor, Larson sponsored a referendum to raise sales taxes to support county services.

“If you’re prioritizing paying off debt or pension obligations, and because of that you are cutting funds that go to homeless shelters or parks — or you’re refusing to negotiate with bus drivers to save a few pennies but it creates problems — it’s OK to hold on to some of the debt to get people services when they need it the most,” Larson says.

Go to voteforlarson.com for more information.

Chris Abele

Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele says he’s running for reelection on his record. So far he’s declined to launch personal attacks against challenger Chris Larson, other than to say the senator has no executive experience beyond his unsuccessful time as senate minority leader. Abele says the rhetoric being thrown at  him is ridiculous.

During his five years in office, Abele has:

• Increased county services without raising taxes.

• Reduced the projected $86 million deficit that Scott Walker bequeathed him to $15 million. 

• Created a debt reserve of $50 million.

• Won a $10 million grant from the federal government for Milwaukee County Child Support Services to fund a program that helps fathers stabilize their financial situations and remain current with their child support.

• Taken over the Milwaukee County Department of Corrections from Sheriff David Clarke and shifted its focus from purely punitive to rehabilitative, helping inmates get degrees, job skills and resumes.

• Utilized wrap-around services from the county to provide mental health and other vital services to MPS students. The move qualifies MPS for new federal funding.

Given the almost relentless attempts to define him as a right-winger, many Milwaukeeans are surprised to learn that Abele, who led his family’s philanthropic Argosy Foundation before becoming the Milwaukee County executive, is a major contributor to groups such as Planned Parenthood, Fair Wisconsin, the ACLU and the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee. He personally funds scholarships for the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design. He gave $250,000 to the Milwaukee Area Technical College Promise program.

Abele also was a major donor to John Kerry, Barack Obama, Tammy Baldwin, Mary Burke and other prominent Democrats. 

On June 6, 2014, when a federal court ruled that Wisconsin’s ban on same-sex marriage was unconstitutional, Abele personally paid to keep the Milwaukee County Courthouse open late and over the weekend to accommodate and celebrate the state’s first gay and lesbian marriages. He served as a witness for several couples.

Abele was sued for his efforts but the case was dismissed.

Abele’s foes say that he’s “Walker-lite” in terms of his alleged power grabs, lack of transparency and willingness to cut services rather than raise taxes or run up more debt.

The alternative newspaper Shepherd Express has helped to boost that perception with weekly stories lambasting the county executive’s every move.

Shepherd Express publisher Louis Fortis and Abele were involved in a bitter lawsuit over control of the Milwaukee International Film Festival. The case was ultimately dismissed, and Fortis says the suit has nothing to do with his coverage of Abele. He points out that he endorsed Abele in his first race.

Like Abele’s other critics, Fortis worries about Abele’s consolidation of power. 

One example often cited is what foes call his “take-over” of the county mental health board.

“I now have less direct authority than I did before,” Abele responds. “If I wanted control, I would have had this whole department report to me, but I said report to people who are mental health professionals.”

Abele says his reformation of mental health services has resulted in better care at a lower cost.

As for the charge that he refuses to cooperate with county supervisors, Abele points out that he vetoed just two of the more than 60 amendments they added to his recent budget, noting that 60 is dozens of amendments more than boards normally add.

Go to chrisabele.com for more information. 

Debate set

When: 6 p.m. Feb. 4

Where: Washington Park Senior Center, 4420 W. Vliet St., Milwaukee

The Democratic Party of Milwaukee County holds a debate in advance of the Spring Primary Election with state Sen. Chris Larson, County Executive Chris Abele and Joe Klein, all candidates for county executive. Milwaukee County Clerk Joseph J. Czarnezki will moderate. Space is limited. RSVP at www.milwaukeedems.org. 

For more, see WiG’s cover story.


No love lost in county exec race

It’s safe to say that Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele won’t get a Valentine’s Day card from state Sen. Chris Larson.

In 2011, Larson stood behind Abele in his first campaign to lead the county. But whatever affection existed between the two Democrats has long since faded. Now one of Abele’s fiercest critics, Larson is gunning for his job this spring, alarming Democratic officials.

Larson says he feels “betrayed” by Abele, whom he characterizes as a power-crazed closet conservative who sold his soul to Republicans in order to establish political domination.

Abele critics point to three broad areas of divergence: the county board, his management style and his collaboration with Republicans.


The county board’s battle with Abele began with the parks. In 2012, Abele abruptly fired Milwaukee County Parks director Sue Black without consultation or explanation.

Abele continued to anger supervisors by allegedly asking Republican leaders in Madison to enact laws allowing him to go around the board. For instance, critics say Abele got the Legislature to grant him the authority to sell off county buildings and public spaces without board approval — a move that led Larson to dub him “King Abele” and exacerbated his rift with public park supporters.

The battle between Abele and the county board went nuclear when he allegedly persuaded  the Legislature to create a binding referendum asking voters to approve making county supervisors part-time employees and reducing their pay from $50,679 to $24,051. 

County voters approved the measure by a vote of 71 percent in April 2014 (the changes go into effect following this year’s April elections). Since that vote, county supervisors, along with their friends, allies and those folks who oppose any cuts to government on general principle, have been out to get Abele out of office.

It was probably that referendum more than anything that lit a fire under Larson. A former supervisor himself, Larson feels strongly about the board’s significance. He’s close to many of its members, some of whom are his former colleagues and political supporters.

Another beef concerns Abele’s management style. Larson maintains that the firing of Black exemplifies Abele’s greatest leadership flaw — an inability to get along with other people. He says that trait has resulted in the loss of valuable personnel.

“Half a dozen department heads have gotten the ax (from Abele) without explanation,” Larson says.

But it’s Abele’s collaboration with Republican leaders that most infuriates his critics in today’s hyper-partisan political environment. And indeed, Abele has worked with Republicans to make changes in the structure of county government. He’s cultivated a working relationship with Gov. Scott Walker’s administration, which is something akin to a capital crime in Wisconsin’s Democratic circles.

Abele’s relationships with GOP leaders such as Sen. Alberta Darling and Reps. Dale Kooyenga and Joe Sanfelippo have led to charges that he’s a Democrat in name only. Critics are livid over his adoption of such GOP ideas as privatizing governmental services. In the progressive cosmology, that’s a sin leading to the lower circles of hell.


Abele replies that he knew working with the “enemy” would hurt his image among fellow progressives. But, he says, it’s his duty to do everything he can to get things done on behalf of the people he represents, which means dealing with those who call the shots in the capital. 

“I have a friendly relationship with Walker,” he acknowledges, even though he heavily supported Mary Burke in her challenge against Walker. “When you keep a good relationship with someone who wears a different letter, you’re sometimes able to talk to them and, at minimum, prevent something you think is a really bad idea from going forward.”

Milwaukee County residents have benefited from Abele’s bipartisan efforts. His lobbying of the Legislature yielded funding for the county to hire a much-needed comptroller — a financial overseer who, he notes, does not report to him. The county also has received additional money from the state as a result of Abele’s outreach.

According to Abele, “My decisions are informed by what I think is right, not politically expedient.”

He says he refuses to be a part of what he calls the “tea party left” — progressives who define themselves by whom and what they’re against. He compares his plight with that of former House Speaker John Boehner, who was essentially ousted from his job for cooperating with the White House.

Regarding what critics consider his most Republican-inspired power grab — the so-called “takeover” of Milwaukee Public Schools, Abele has a ready explanation.

According to Abele, Republican leaders in the Legislature wanted an elected official in Milwaukee to take responsibility for turning around the city’s public schools, many of which are failing. They first offered the role to Mayor Tom Barrett, who turned it down, probably because it was such a political hot potato. Next it was offered to Abele, who took it. His critics claim he sought it out, but Abele denies that charge.

“They offered it to me, and I thought, ‘I can make this into something good,’” Abele counters. “Anyone who thinks I could have stopped (Republican leaders) from putting someone in charge of the schools is wrong. They have a majority. It was going to go through.”

Still, Larson faults Abele for going along with Republican legislators. He believes Abele should have turned down the offer, and he charges that his opponent couldn’t resist the allure of more power.

Abele, on the other hand, says he accepted the position to help. Education, he says, has long been one of the primary areas in which he’s focused his interest and philanthropy. As chair of the Boys and Girls Clubs of Milwaukee, for instance, Abele partnered with 36 MPS schools to win a federal grant for $7 million — $125,000 per school. He says he accepted MPS oversight in order to use the same sorts of innovations on a wider scale.

Ultimately, Abele appointed Demond Means — superintendent of the Mequon-Thiensville school district and himself a respected graduate of the Milwaukee Public Schools — as commissioner of the turnaround program, called the Opportunity Schools and Partnership Program.

That decision was widely praised but Larson remains skeptical about how it will play out in the long run. He accuses Abele of a deathbed conversion on the issue just in time for the upcoming election.


Larson and his supporters face long odds in the race to unseat Abele.

First, they will have to amass a large and motivated grassroots army of volunteers to overcome Abele’s personal wealth and name recognition. The latest campaign finance report indicates what an uphill battle that’s going to be. In the second half of 2015, Larson raised about $66,000, according to the report he filed in January. He ended the year with $53,518 on hand.

In contrast, Abele had spent $500,000 on advertising by last December.

In order to win, Larson and his allies must turn his campaign into a grassroots movement that generates very high turnout for him in what’s certain to be a very low-turnout race. That’s the strategy conservatives used to elect Scott Walker as Milwaukee County executive three times, even though Barack Obama received 67 percent of the Milwaukee County vote in 2012.

Another problem to overcome is the low profile of the county board and the fact that Abele has such a stellar record that WisPolitics named him “Democrat of the Year” for 2015. Voters outside of Milwaukee’s progressive strongholds are more likely to praise Abele for cutting the county board than to damn him for it. And the charges against Abele’s management style are likely to matter less to voters than the fact that he put the county’s finances in order without raising taxes.

Democratic Party officials are mostly steering clear of this race. They fear that Larson’s challenge is a lose-lose for them. It pits their top individual donor (Abele) against one of their rising stars (Larson). Party insiders further worry that the race could fatigue grassroots volunteers and create divisions in the state’s largest Democratic stronghold going into a landmark election cycle in November.

With the odds stacked against him, Larson has resorted to rhetoric and stunts that have only increased party officials’ jitters. An event staged by Larson in early January no doubt had them reaching for their Xanax. 

On a bitingly cold day, Larson held a news conference in front of the Moderne, a posh downtown high-rise where Abele owns two condos (not one, but two, Larson emphasizes). In a bone-chilling wind, he condemned Abele for ignoring the needs of homeless residents while indulging in a life of excessive luxury. The only prop missing was a guillotine.

Democratic strategists winced at the personal nature of the attack, as well as the suggestion that rich equals evil. Democrats and progressive nonprofits rely heavily on wealthy contributors like Abele. Moreover, trying to capitalize on class resentment played into one of conservatives’ worst stereotypes of progressives.

The stunt even managed to offend the far left: Pirate Party candidate Joseph Klein slammed Larson for trying to score political points on the backs of the homeless.

Abele’s budgets have included $418,000 in funding for the homeless each year from 2012 through 2016. The funding to which Larson alluded was $300,000 in federal money for Milwaukee that was not renewed this year and not included in Abele’s budget. The county board, however, amended the budget to include the lost dollars, just as it had the year before, and Abele accepted it.

Homelessness is not a problem Abele has neglected. Abele and Mayor Tom Barrett teamed up to launch a plan that the two say will end chronic homelessness in Milwaukee. The plan relies on $1.8 million in funding to place homeless individuals directly into permanent housing, thus leaving fewer people to rely on overnight shelters.

Still, Larson and his allies point out the plan does nothing to protect those who are not yet in permanent housing from the risks of below-zero nights. 

This sort of back-and-forth will undoubtedly continue right up to April 5. In the meantime, Democratic leaders will be watching silently, but with bated breath.

The frontrunners

Chris Larson and Chris Abele are the heavy-hitters in a race that includes Steve Hogan and Pirate Party candidate Joseph Thomas Klein, who unsuccessfully campaigned twice to represent the 19th Assembly District. After a Feb. 16 primary, Larson and Abele are likely to square off in a runoff election on April 5.

For more, read WiG’s candidate profiles.

Investigators: Walker’s office ‘obstructed’ probe of funds stolen from veterans charity

Investigators in the closed John Doe probe argued in a federal court brief filed on Friday that Scott Walker’s county executive staff “obstructed” its efforts to investigate missing donations to a veterans fund. The court brief includes recently unsealed investigative records.

Walker’s office did not respond to a message left Friday evening asking about the allegations that his office failed to cooperate in investigating the veterans-fund thefts. In 2012, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that a Walker spokeswoman denied that his office was uncooperative with the probe, and Walker has denied the allegation in the past.

On Friday, chief investigator David Budde and investigator Robert Stelter reaffirmed that the John Doe investigation began after one of Walker’s top staff reported funds missing from “Operation Freedom,” an annual event held by Walker’s office to thank veterans for their military service.

The prosecutors maintained that the secret probe was necessary only because Walker’s office “was uncooperative and obstructed the District Attorney’s Office’s efforts to obtain documentation of the County’s receipt and disbursement of donations from Operation Freedom.”

“As a consequence, the District Attorney’s Office was forced to petition a John Doe proceeding in order to have legal mechanisms to obtain relevant documentation from the County Executive’s Office,” they argued.

Two Walker associates — former Deputy Chief of Staff Tim Russell and former veterans’ commission member Kevin Kavanaugh — were convicted of stealing more than $70,000 in donations from Operation Freedom. Four others, including Walker’s former deputy chief of staff, Kelly Rindfleisch, were convicted on a variety of other charges.

The filing in U.S. District Court in Milwaukee also revealed that Archer and Walker’s then-campaign treasurer John Hiller were under criminal investigation five years ago for their actions involving the proposed lease of office space by Milwaukee County that would have benefited real-estate clients of Hiller’s who had donated to Walker’s gubernatorial campaign.

The Wisconsin State Journal reported in October that Archer had given Hiller inside information about a pending bid for office space and that Walker was aware of the activity. That report was based on thousands of pages of emails released from the investigation, which ended in 2013

Milwaukee County ultimately decided not to rent the additional office space, and no one was ever charged in connection with the 2010 request for proposals.

“A Democratic district attorney who’s looked at this issue for two years 20 months ago … closed that case because he didn’t find any reason to go forward. I think that speaks volumes,” Walker told the Wisconsin State Journal at the time.

A new look

The documents filed Friday came in response to allegations Archer made in a lawsuit filed July 1 in Milwaukee County Circuit Court alleging that prosecutors led by Chisholm have engaged in a “continued campaign of harassment and intimidation” against Archer and other Walker supporters.

But the newly released documents reveal that the criminal investigation into the activities of Walker and his staff began before he was elected governor in 2010.

Archer’s lawsuit claims she was subjected to unwarranted investigation, including a Sept. 14, 2011, “raid” of her Madison home, as retaliation for her work with Walker on writing Act 10. Walker introduced the bill in February 2011 shortly after taking office.

But Budde and Stelter provided John Doe records unsealed July 10 by John Doe judge Neal Nettesheim showing the investigation into Archer’s activities began months before Walker’s surprise introduction of the bill that sparked weeks of protests at the Capitol.

The federal court filing on Friday also revealed new information about the now-closed investigation into the activities of Scott Walker and his staff when he was the Milwaukee County executive.

Although the investigation initially was launched to probe the missing veterans funds, prosecutors repeatedly enlarged it as they came across illegal campaign activity by Walker staffers, possible bid rigging and improper campaign contributions. Walker was never charged.

The records show Archer’s Milwaukee County office was searched in December 2010 for evidence that she had worked on Walker’s gubernatorial campaign while on county time and at her county office on “multiple occasions over a sustained period of time” when she served as director of the County Department of Administrative Services.

The filing also included a tape recording made of Archer’s interactions with officers during the search of her home, which was conducted by the FBI and members of the Milwaukee County and Dane County district attorneys’ offices. The recording was not available online late Friday.

In their brief, Budde and Stelter revealed that the Archer investigation involved not only possible bid rigging and suspected illegal campaign activity but also possible violations of the state open records law, which Walker secretly attempted to repeal retroactively while drafting the 2015–17 biennial budget. The brief said a criminal complaint was drafted naming Archer “and others” with two counts of conspiracy to commit misconduct in public office and one count of solicitation to commit misconduct in public office, but Chisholm’s office decided not to file it.

“While the District Attorney’s Office ultimately decided not to issue the draft criminal complaint, it reflects the good faith basis all defendants had in investigating Archer’s conduct for Milwaukee County,” the two argued.

The filing also showed that two weeks after the search of her home, Archer signed a proffer letter in which she agreed to provide information to the district attorney’s office of  “criminal activity in the Milwaukee area and elsewhere” in exchange for a promise that the interview would not be used directly against her in any criminal or civil proceeding.

The prosecutors being sued by Archer for alleged harassment want the case moved to U.S. District Court in Milwaukee. The prosecutors told U.S. District Judge Lynn Adelman that the lawsuit belongs in federal court because the allegations involve alleged federal civil-rights violations.

A second John Doe investigation into coordination between Walker’s recall campaign and conservative political groups was halted in July by the Wisconsin Supreme Court’s conservative majority, all four of whom had received a total of about $8 million in donations from the conservative groups under investigation. In Justice Michael Gableman’s majority ruling, he denied that coordination between campaigns and dark money groups was ever illegal, despite U.S. Supreme Court rulings to the contrary.

70,000 more pages of Walker documents released

Nearly 70,000 pages of emails and attachments were released this week that had been collected during the first secret investigation into former aides and associates of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker when he was Milwaukee County executive.

Here are a few things to know about the latest documents made public in the now-closed case: 


Thousands of pages of emails from the personal accounts of six people from Walker’s county executive office were included. This was the fourth release of emails and documents collected during the investigation that a judge ruled in May must be made public. The first batch was released by Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele’s office in August, followed by more in September and October. To date, roughly 24 gigabytes of data has been released, totaling more than 100,000 pages of material. Additionally, 27,000 pages of emails collected during the probe were previously released as part of an appeal made by Kelly Rindfleisch, one of the six Walker aides or associates convicted as a result of the investigation. Walker was never charged with wrongdoing.


Given the volume of emails already been released, much of what was made public Tuesday was not new. The emails show, once again, that Walker was deeply involved with decision-making by his county and 2010 gubernatorial campaign team. It was that activity of doing campaign work while on government time that was investigated as part of the probe that closed with no charges against Walker.

Several emails show Walker suggesting minor changes to press releases, writing his own responses, and pushing back against news stories he did not view as favorable. In an April 1, 2010, email sent to his chief of staff Tom Nardelli, Walker outlines his media strategy and tells Nardelli: “No one should be commenting on anything until we have a chance to talk and until we agree on our message.”

In another email string two weeks later, Walker, his campaign staff and his county staff try to quickly react to questions about why he wasn’t doing public service announcements about donating blood. “Let’s get to the bottom of it fast before we get a beating. Tick tock,” wrote Walker’s campaign adviser R.J. Johnson. Ultimately, they determine the request for Walker to do the announcements went to a campaign email account he didn’t personally check. “It does beg the question about who reads the email (at) scott(at)scottwalker.org,” Walker wrote to his county and campaign staff.


Even though the emails come from personal computers of county workers, any material dubbed to be non-public, such as private employee information, personal medical information and attorney-client communication, was removed. There will be one final release of documents totaling “a few” gigabytes of data next month, said Milwaukee County attorney Paul Bargren.


These records were collected during the first so-called John Doe investigation of Walker, which ended in 2013. A John Doe investigation is Wisconsin’s version of a grand jury probe where information is tightly controlled and investigators go about their work in secret.

A second investigation began in 2012 and focused on alleged illegal coordination between Walker’s recall campaign and more than two dozen conservative groups. That investigation is on hold after the judge overseeing it in January blocked subpoenas prosecutors requested.

That case is pending before the state Supreme Court.

Endorsement | Burke has the skills, commitment and decency Wisconsin needs to prosper

When Chris Abele took over as Milwaukee County Executive after Scott Walker resigned prematurely to become governor, he found the office in a shambles. Walker had accumulated so much deferred debt that the county was paying more to service it than to provide county services. At a recent political forum, Abele said that no one in county government had even received a performance review when Walker was in charge.

From the steady stream of email releases in conjunction with the first John Doe investigation of Walker’s Milwaukee County staff, it seems that there was more campaigning going on in his administration than work on the county’s behalf.

Just as Walker was running for governor while serving as Milwaukee County Executive, he’s been running for president since the day he took up residence in the governor’s mansion. He’s repeatedly divided Wisconsin with reckless and backward decisions that have made him a sensation among Republican presidential primary voters and a star among suppliers of big corporate cash. But while they’ve benefitted his right-wing cred, they’ve done nothing to advance the state.

In order to create a record indicating fiscal responsibility, Walker has played shell games with the budget, once again deferring expenses well into the future, when he won’t have to deal them. But you, the people of Wisconsin, will.

Walker appears ready-to-go for 2016. He’s attended all the essential preliminary presidential-bid stomping grounds around the country. He’s visited all the early-voting primary states — on your dime. He’s even released the essential political memoir, an embarrassingly disingenuous tome that painted him just one virgin shy of the second coming.

But since a majority of Republicans don’t want him jumping ship mid-term and leaving Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch, a political double for retiring U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., in charge, Walker’s been coy about his future plans. Just days after pledging during a debate to serve out his full term if re-elected, Walker told the media he would not run for president in 2016 if Paul Ryan did. Obviously, he’d already forgotten his previous statement.

But Wisconsin voters already know what Walker’s promises are worth. Most famously, he promised in 2010 to create 250,000 jobs during his first four years in office (he’s achieved about 40 percent of that promise). Then he went on to say that he expects to be held fully accountable for that pledge.

But Walker made numerous decisions that obstructed his ability to fulfill it. Now he and his apologists, such as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, say we voters should have known better than to take such a pledge verbatim.

We’re not buying it.

Walker turned down hundreds of millions of dollars in federal grants that would have returned Wisconsin taxpayer money to the state to create jobs. Those dollars would also have improved our transportation and health-care infrastructures, making the state more competitive.

Other governors, including other Republican governors, fell over themselves to get that money. Now their economies are ahead of ours and we’re out about $4 billion that we had coming to us — it is, after all, our tax money.

But Walker doesn’t care, because such antics have made him a hero to the hardcore GOP base around the country. Wisconsin has been playing with one arm tied behind its metaphorical back just to buoy Walker’s political ambitions.

Most likely for the same reason, Walker gutted the rights of public workers without warning or debate, leading to hundreds of thousands of retirements that took millions out of our consumer economy. At the same time, he gave insignificant — some might say insulting — tax cuts to the middle class and huge cuts to the wealthy.

As a result of lowering taxes while simultaneously reducing the tax base, Walker now has a deficit that stands at $1.8 billion over the next two years and is expected to rise even higher after all state departments have filed their budget requests. Meanwhile, just as he did at Milwaukee County, Walker continues to accumulate deferred debt at the state level for someone else to deal with later.

Walker’s deficit comes despite some terrible budget cuts he made, including larger education cuts than any other governor in the nation during his first year. Now Wisconsin workers are not prepared to fill the job requirements of many employers — a problem he actually threw in the audience’s face during his first debate with Burke.

And let’s not forget about Walker’s flagship job-creation agency — the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation. He handed its management over to such shockingly unqualified cronies that WEDC lost track of millions of dollars, gave grants to companies that either defaulted or shipped jobs overseas and spent over $200 million to create only 4,796 jobs.

Why Burke

Walker’s agenda for the future, by his own admission, is more of the same failed, boilerplate GOP strategies — shrink government spending, cut regulations, lower taxes for corporations and wealthy individuals. It’s never worked and it’s not suddenly going to start working now.

Walker is a great example of what happens when someone with no real-world management or business experience is placed in a position of overseeing a multi-billion-dollar bureaucracy. For decades, Republicans themselves have argued that career politicians are unqualified to serve in such positions.

As a paper committed to progress and reform, we agree whole-heartedly with Republicans on this issue. That’s one of the many reasons we endorse Democrat Mary Burke with great confidence and enthusiasm.

A vote for Burke is far more than a vote against Walker. She is one of the strongest, most promising candidates running anywhere in the nation this year. Even Walker apologists have acknowledged how unique and qualified Burke is to lead the state.

In addition to holding a Harvard MBA, she’s a successful businesswoman with deep international experience. She established — from the ground up — European operations for Trek Bicycle Corp. Those operations have grown from $3 million to $50 million in revenue.

Burke understands how business operates. She knows how to balance a real-world budget and she understands the challenges facing the entrepreneurs and start-up companies that are the only hope for Wisconsin’s future.

While college-dropout Walker has repeatedly sold out the interests of Wisconsinites to cultivate politically useful relationships with uber wealthy donors, Burke is financially independent. While he has higher political aspirations, Burke simply wants to be governor because she believes — correctly, in our opinion — that she has the skills and commitment to turn the state’s lagging economy around while restoring its progressive tradition of governing in a way that serves everyone, not just the rich and politically connected.

Burke’s stance on social issues such as women’s reproductive freedom, marriage equality, pay equity and voting rights are in line with those of the forward-thinking people Wisconsin needs to retain and attract to halt the state’s brain drain.

While Walker has acknowledged in public that his political game is based on a strategy of divide and conquer, Burke is eager to bring people together to solve the complex problems that involve us all, to find common ground and build consensus. That’s how private sector executives solve problems, and that’s how Burke has solved problems all her life, whether in the corporate boardroom or in her many leadership roles on boards of nonprofits. In a state that under Walker has become perhaps the most divided in the nation, Burke offers the sort of unifying leadership we need.

Burke’s economic knowledge is reflected in her job-growth strategy of identifying business and educational clusters and utilizing their strengths and resources to create new areas of industry, such as fresh-water and clean energy technology or biomedical and digital products and services. Her plans, culled from the most inventive and promising business development strategies being utilized today, not only look great on paper but also have actually worked incredibly well in places such as California’s Silicon Valley.

Burke has shown as much tireless commitment to her community as Walker has to his political career. She serves on the Madison School Board and has been instrumental in turning the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County into a model for lifting up troubled youth. She co-founded a program that mentors underprivileged kids at risk of becoming drop-outs and helps them develop the life skills to get into college. The program has a 90-percent success rate.

A third-generation Wisconsinite who could live in a mansion but chooses instead to live in a modest home where her grandfather once delivered mail, Burke’s personal narrative is rooted in true American values, especially the value of hard work. She’s smart, humble and eager to help others. She wants the actual job of governor, not just the title. 

The Wisconsin GOP has been trying for months to brand Burke, but her foes don’t know how to handle an opponent who actually possesses the skills and decency they preach. The GOP’s opposition researchers must feel they’ve discovered a new species — which isn’t’ saying much for a lot of Democrats either and we know it.

They might not know what to do with Burke, but we do: Vote for her as soon as possible. The polls are open now for early voting and Election Day is Nov. 4. Ignore the Republican dirty tricksters who say photo ID is necessary in this election. It’s not.

Wisconsin Gazette is Milwaukee’s award-winning alternative newspaper. Are you missing out on our ticket giveaways and free discount coupons? Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Politically queer | Chris Abele defies labels and stereotypes

Milwaukee County Executive Chris Abele – millionaire, philanthropist and proud LGBT ally – is that oddest of ducks on Wisconsin’s current political scene. He’s a progressive Democrat who’s willing to deal with Republican leaders on behalf of his constituents. In fact, he actually talks to Gov. Scott Walker. 

“In my current job as county executive, it’s kind of my job to have as good a relationship as I can with whoever’s in the majority, so I can get things done for the county,” he says.  

Once upon a time, in an America that seems far away, Abele’s bipartisan, pragmatic approach to governance was expected and even praised. But in the most harshly divided state in a nation that’s more partisan than perhaps at any time since the Civil War, “the most corrosive thing … is the punishment that comes with deviating from the orthodoxy,” Abele says.

The Shepherd Express has been dogging him ever since he and publisher Louis Fortis became embroiled in a three-year lawsuit over the Milwaukee Film Festival (the case was dismissed last year). In frequently un-bylined stories or articles bylined by “Shepherd Express Staff,” the county executive is characterized as a wealthy heir who serves at the beck and call of his rich friends and donors. In reality, Abele is his only rich donor, and he laughs at the depiction of him as some sort of Gatsby, saying he’s never owned a yacht, doesn’t have a driver and doesn’t belong to a country club.

Ironically, the Shepherd named Abele Milwaukeean of the Year in 2002, prior to his row with Fortis. 

Leftist bloggers also have been critical of Abele. Progressives were scandalized when he supported Act 14, a law passed by Republicans in Madison to slash the board’s budget while giving the county executive more power.

Opponents characterized the move as a power grab, but Abele says all the grabbing has been from the other side. The board’s size and budget have expanded over the years to the point they’re out of proportion with the county’s population and needs, he contends.

His support for Act 14 and Abele’s firing last year of popular County Parks Director Sue Black have helped fuel a level of tension between supervisors and the county executive that rivals the animus between the board and Abele’s predecessor Scott Walker. Supervisors apparently evened the score by exercising the power they have to oust County Corporation Counsel Kimberly Walker – a move that Abele blasted as petty and destructive, especially since they gave no reason for the firing. 

County Board Chairwoman Marina Dimitrijevic did not return two messages seeking comment, but she denied to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that the firing of Walker was retributive.

When Abele announced that he’d hired John Dargle, the award-winning director of the Fairfax, Va., County Park Authority, to take over Black’s position, Dimitrijevic responded with sarcasm.

“It’s nice that the county executive is finally focusing on the management of Milwaukee County by working toward filling the many vacancies in his administration,” she said in a statement. “The people of this county value their parks. Mr. Dargle will have big shoes to fill in the eyes of this community.”

Inherited debt

Abele says most of the controversial moves he’s made have been necessary to eliminate the long-term debt left behind by Walker. Just as he’s doing as governor, Walker “balanced” the county’s budget by postponing debt repayment into the future, when he wouldn’t have to deal with it.  Abele got stuck with a budget of $1.4 billion and $1 billion in long-term debt. The debt service totaled $107 million his first year in office, he says.

Abele opted to address the debt sooner rather than later “so that the $107 million doesn’t go to debt but back into services, which is where it should go,” he says.

Abele says he’s been able to increase the parks budget and capital budget with the savings in loan payments.

No Donald Trump

Sitting at the large round conference table in the county executive’s office, Abele looks like anything but a power-hungry, backroom politico.  At 46, he has a short, trim stature and boyish face that project youthfulness. In interviews with most politicians, you can see the wheels spinning in their eyes as they calculate a response. Abele responds spontaneously, smilingly and seemingly without guile.

Though he lives in a historic mega-mansion, you’d never know it from the way he dresses, which is decidedly down. He doesn’t flaunt his wealth with designer suits and $100 haircuts. His wardrobe is more Kohl’s than Kenneth Cole.

In short, the county executive is more like an Eagle Scout than a Donald Trump. His staff doesn’t even have a selection of high-res pictures of Abele for the press.

“Yes, I have wealth,” Abele acknowledges. “My father (John Abele, who founded the medical device company Boston Scientific in 1979) worked his ass off and was really successful – and I’m proud of him for that.”

Although his father is a multibillionaire now, Abele grew up in what he describes as a “small, lower-middle-class house.” He says that his family has not lost sight of their humble beginnings or the social responsibility that comes with great success.

“My dad always said, ‘This isn’t an entitlement, it’s a privilege and a responsibility,’” Abele says.

Abele also has created successful businesses on his own and headed his family’s Argosy Foundation, which has given away many millions of dollars to nonprofit groups, particularly environmental causes.

“You can’t control the circumstances in which you are born, but you can control what you do with it,” Abele says. “Some of the most satisfying experiences I’ve had have been volunteer board memberships and being in a position where I can give money away.”

But, he adds, “I still spend a lot of time asking myself, ‘Am I doing enough?’ 

“For what it’s worth, I understand people can be resentful of wealth,” Abele says. No doubt there are some awful behaviors (among the rich) – Wall Street bankers and predatory lenders, for example. There’s no socioeconomic class that has a monopoly on either great people or assholes.”

Proud LGBT ally

One of the most consistent recipients of Abele’s largesse has been Wisconsin’s LGBT community. He contributed heavily to the fight against the constitutional ban on same-sex marriage and civil unions enacted by voters in 2006, and he’s continued to give generously. In the past year, he’s given $100,000 to Fair Wisconsin and Equality Wisconsin.

Abele also has served on the board of Planned Parenthood at both the state and national levels. He chaired Women for Women International, which provides assistance to female survivors of war. It’s one of the fastest growing women’s groups in the world.

“County Executive Abele’s commitment to advancing marriage equality in Wisconsin is inspiring, and he is truly a visionary leader in the movement to achieve full equality for LGBT Wisconsinites,” says Fair Wisconsin executive director Katie Belanger. “We at Fair Wisconsin are grateful to have his support, and I am proud to call him my friend.

“Abele’s the kind of leader who’s unafraid to ask the tough questions and envision a new way to solve old problems. It has been extremely refreshing to work with an elected leader and movement investor who is so willing to think creatively about how to advance issues we all care so much about.”

It’s not just Abele’s financial support that has inspired Belanger and other LGBT leaders in Wisconsin. He shows up at LGBT community events more frequently than any other elected official in Milwaukee – perhaps in the state. It’s quite possible that he knows by name most staff members of the city’s LGBT nonprofits and greets many of them with hugs.

While the LGBT people of Wisconsin have many straight allies, not one is better versed in the community’s issues or more genuinely committed to its equality than Abele. 

The fact that he’s given so much attention to a group of constituents who are small in number and have fervent opponents on the religious right underscores Abele’s sincerity. Ultimately, the one political pigeonhole where he can be placed is that of a leader whose wealth has empowered independent thought and action, as well as the freedom to pursue an agenda that emphasizes social justice and fiscal sustainability.

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Judge: John Doe/ex-Walker aides investigation continues

The judge overseeing the investigation into people who worked for Republican Gov. Scott Walker when he was the Milwaukee County executive said on Nov. 28 that the probe is not complete and remains open.

Walker had said on Nov. 27 that he hoped the so-called “John Doe” investigation would end as early as this week. He made the comments in response to a question at a meeting of the Dairy Business Association and said afterward that he was basing his hope on media accounts and a general feeling that the investigation was winding down.

But retired Waukesha County Judge Neal Nettesheim told The Associated Press in a telephone interview from his home that anyone guessing that the probe was coming to an end was engaging in “pure conjecture.”

“The John Doe is not completed,” Nettesheim said. “It is still open.”

The investigation into Walker’s former aides and associates during his time as Milwaukee County executive began in May 2010, six months before he was elected governor. Six people have been charged with crimes including misconduct in office and theft, but Walker has not been charged or accused of any wrongdoing. 

Walker said early this week that he was “absolutely” confident that he was not the target of the investigation. On Nov. 28, when asked to respond to the judge’s comment that the probe was still active, the governor reiterated that he had no inside knowledge that it was nearing an end, but that was simply his hope.

“It hasn’t stopped us from doing our job,” he said after giving a 45-minute speech to the state’s chamber of commerce about his priorities for next year. “My focus hasn’t changed.”

Walker said he would be “happy and hopeful it would be done this week.”

Bruce Landgraf, an assistant district attorney leading the investigation, has declined to comment on its status.

Six people have been charged so far as a result of the probe:

• Tim Russell, a former deputy chief of staff for Walker in his county office, reached a plea deal with prosecutors in a felony embezzlement case. Russell was charged with embezzling more than $20,000 from a veterans group that Walker assigned him to lead. 

• Kelly Rindfleisch, another former deputy chief of staff, pleaded guilty to a felony count of misconduct in office after she did campaign work on taxpayers’ time. Three similar counts were dismissed. She was sentenced last week to six months in jail.

• Kevin D. Kavanaugh, whom Walker had named to the county Veterans Service Commission, was found guilty last month of stealing more than $51,000 that had been donated to help veterans and their families. He is scheduled to be sentenced Dec. 7.

• Darlene Wink, a former Walker aide, pleaded guilty this summer to two misdemeanor charges of working on Walker’s gubernatorial campaign on county time. She has a Jan. 10 sentencing hearing.

• William Gardner, president and chief executive officer of Wisconsin & Southern Railroad Co., was sentenced to two years’ probation in July after being found guilty of exceeding state campaign donation limits and laundering campaign donations to Walker and other Wisconsin politicians.

• Brian Pierick, Russell’s domestic partner, was charged with child enticement, evidence of which was allegedly discovered during the investigation of Russell. Pierick’s jury trial is scheduled to start Jan. 29.

Few signs that John Doe probe will net more suspects

When a former aide to Gov. Scott Walker is sentenced, the hearing will bring to a close the second of six cases that grew out of a long-running investigation into Walker’s office when he served as the Milwaukee County executive.

Details of the entire probe are secret, so everyone from investigators to those being investigated are prohibited from discussing details. So it’s not clear how close the so-called John Doe investigation is to wrapping up.

But there have been few indications that additional suspects will be named, at least according to sparse online court records. A total of 13 people have asked for and received immunity in exchange for their testimony, but the last time that happened was nearly six months ago.

Bruce Landgraf, an assistant district attorney leading the investigation, said he couldn’t comment on whether any more charges or suspects would be named.

So far, six people have been charged, of whom four have been convicted and one sentenced. The other two head to trial in coming months.

Walker has continually said he’s not a target of the investigation, and has not been charged. He voluntarily agreed to meet with prosecutors in April.

One of his former top aides, Kelly Rindfleisch, pleaded guilty last month to a felony count of misconduct in office, stemming from allegations that she did campaign work on the taxpayers’ time. Three similar counts were dismissed.

Rindfleisch, who was Walker’s deputy chief of staff in 2010 in the county executive’s office, is scheduled to be sentenced today. Landgraf has promised to recommend jail time and probation rather than prison. 

In a pre-sentencing memorandum released last week, Landgraf noted that Rindfleisch’s plea averted a trial that would have revealed thousands of emails she exchanged with campaigns for Walker and another Republican candidate. He also revealed that she’d apparently been on the payroll for Walker’s campaign even after she was charged.

The only person to be sentenced thus far was railroad executive William Gardner. He was sentenced to two years’ probation in July after being found guilty of exceeding state campaign donation limits and laundering campaign donations to Walker and other Wisconsin politicians.

Walker’s campaign returned the $43,800 in donations Gardner had given him.

Another Walker aide, Darlene J. Wink, pleaded guilty this summer to two misdemeanor charges of working on Walker’s gubernatorial campaign on county time. She was scheduled to be sentenced this Wednesday, but Landgraf said he’ll ask for the hearing to be postponed a third time so he could extract her continued cooperation on the prosecution of Tim Russell, another Walker associate.

Russell, Walker’s former deputy chief of staff, is charged with stealing more than $21,000 from a nonprofit Walker asked him to lead. His jury trial is set to begin Dec. 3.

Four days after that, Kevin D. Kavanaugh is scheduled to be sentenced. Kavanaugh, whom Walker had named to the county Veterans Service Commission, was found guilty last month of stealing more than $51,000 that had been donated to help veterans and their families.

The sixth person charged as a result of the probe is Brian Pierick, Russell’s domestic partner. He is accused of child enticement, evidence of which was allegedly discovered during the investigation of one of the others.

Pierick’s jury trial is scheduled to start Jan. 29.